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Amid fears of a Russian invasion, Biden seeks united front with Ukraine and allies

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with President Biden on Thursday. (AP)

President Biden moved to solidify a unified position with Ukraine and U.S. allies on Europe’s eastern flank in a set of phone calls Thursday, part of an urgent effort to prevent and prepare for a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Biden emphasized American support for Kyiv, seeking to reassure a country that has seen Russian forces mass on its border in recent days. The White House is also trying to work out the shape of forthcoming talks with Russia on the Ukraine crisis and other security issues.

Biden also held a separate call Thursday with the “Bucharest Nine,” a group of NATO members on Europe’s eastern edge close to Russia, including the Baltics and Poland, that are particularly sensitive to aggressive moves by Moscow.

Thursday’s conversations took place roughly 48 hours after Biden spoke on a two-hour video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, when he warned the Kremlin leader that severe economic consequences would follow if he once again decides to invade neighboring Ukraine.

Putin’s motives are often opaque to Western governments, and officials say it is far from certain that Russia will move into Ukraine in force. If it does, however, it would amount to one of the biggest military moves in Europe since World War II and present Biden with the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency.

During their call, Biden and Putin agreed that their teams would arrange talks on what the Kremlin calls sensitive European security issues, including Putin’s complaints about NATO activities in and around Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.

Biden expressed hope that by Friday the White House would announce such high-level meetings between the United States and Russia, together with four major NATO allies. The comment privately prompted dismay among some allies on Europe’s eastern flank who feared a discussion of their security without a seat at the table.

Senior administration officials, however, said Thursday the White House is still figuring out the shape of those talks, saying they could occur under the umbrella of existing groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the NATO-Russia Council. The officials said European allies would be closely consulted as Washington decides the format of the talks.

For weeks, U.S. officials have been tracking a buildup of Russian forces by the border with Ukraine and warning allies of the possibility of a new offensive. An unclassified U.S. intelligence analysis, reported last week by The Washington Post, found the Kremlin is making plans for an invasion that could come early next year and include as many as 175,000 troops.

The Kremlin has denied any plans to invade, accusing Washington of fueling a war scare.

After his call with Biden ended, Zelensky tweeted that the two leaders “discussed possible formats for resolving the conflict in Donbas and touched upon the course of internal reforms in Ukraine.” Donbas is the region in eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed fighters are battling Ukrainian forces.

“The one thing that the president made crystal clear in his call with Zelensky today is if Ukraine is on the agenda, then Ukraine is at the table,” a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive policy matter.

Thursday’s call between Biden and Zelensky came on the same day that Biden hosted a virtual Summit for Democracy, featuring roughly 110 countries, and with Russia’s threat to Ukraine serving as yet another reminder of the myriad challenges facing democracies around the world.

Biden acknowledged as much in his opening remarks of the two-day session, in which he warned of a “backward slide” in democracy around the globe and urged world leaders to champion a form of a government that he said needs concerted work to be sustained through this “inflection point in our history.”

The summit followed less than a year after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol and amid an ongoing and contentious domestic fight over voting laws, and Biden acknowledged his nation’s own imperfect practice of democracy. “Here in the United States, we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort,” he said.

The escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine seemed to epitomize the growing threat of global autocracy against which Biden hoped his summit would serve as a bulwark.

As the summit took place, top Russian officials issued warnings on Ukraine that further raised tensions in the region and sought to cast Kyiv as an aggressor Russia had little alternative but to confront — a framing that Ukrainian officials reject.

Russia seized the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, and since then has provided support to pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. The United States and Europe have denounced those actions as illegal, but Russia says Ukrainian citizens friendly to Russia are under threat from the government in Kyiv.

Putin may be testing U.S. with military buildup

Putin told Russia’s Human Rights Council on Thursday that Russophobia is the “first step toward genocide,” reviving the sort of arguments about Russian people in Ukraine that the Kremlin promoted in the run-up to its first invasion in 2014.

“What’s happening now in the Donbas — you and I can see it — we know is very reminiscent of genocide,” Putin said.

Asked about Putin’s genocide claim, White House press secretary Jen Psaki urged reporters to take Moscow’s efforts to message its own public “with a grain of salt.”

“The Russians are known for their rhetorical escalations, as they‘re also known for their ways of providing misinformation around the world and within eastern flank countries,” Psaki said.

Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military’s general staff, warned the government in Kyiv against using military force to reclaim disputed territory held by Kremlin-backed separatists in the country’s east. Gerasimov said any such actions by Kyiv would be suppressed by Moscow — and warned that deliveries of drones, aircraft and helicopters to Ukraine from the West were “pushing Ukrainian authorities toward abrupt and dangerous steps.”

“Information being spread in the media about Russia allegedly preparing an invasion of Ukraine is a lie,” Gerasimov said.

He said NATO countries were paying excessive attention to Russia’s troop movements on its own soil and described the domestic redeployment of units during combat training as “a routine practice for the armed forces of any state.”

Psaki said Thursday it was abundantly clear that Russia, not Ukraine, was the aggressor in the current situation. “What we know is that the aggression here is on the Russian side, the military buildup is on the Russian side,” Psaki said, before noting that the U.S. believes “there’s a path — a diplomatic path forward.”

In a statement after his call with Biden, Zelensky said he had thanked the U.S. president for “his consistent, firm and resolute support” for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Andriy Yermak, head of the presidential administration and one of Zelensky’s main advisers, speaking by video to a Ukrainian news talk show, described Thursday’s call as warm and direct.

“President Biden said clearly that we always repeat — and we repeated during the talks with Putin — that any discussions, any decisions which concern Ukraine cannot be without Ukraine,” Yermak told the show. “President Biden confirmed that the United States will provide — and this is already taking place — all necessary assistance so that Ukraine has the possibility to defend itself at any time.”

Putin has warned that the military activities of NATO countries in and around Ukraine have crossed Russia’s red lines and has called for a written guarantee that the U.S.-led military alliance will not expand eastward, a request the White House has rejected.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that if the United States and its NATO allies continue on their current trajectory and do not come to appreciate Russia’s concerns, it could lead to tension akin to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

“We certainly could suddenly wake up and see something similar to that, given the logic of the unfolding events,” Ryabkov said, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. “That will be a failure of diplomacy. But there is still time to try to come to an agreement on a sensible basis.”

Isabelle Khurshudyan and David L. Stern in Kyiv, and John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.